Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

• It’s definitely a historic event. The senators sitting quietly, we mean.

• Republicans have been making a fundamental legal argument against impeachment: The Democrats have not accused President Trump of any statutory crimes, and therefore it’s illegitimate. But that wasn’t the Founders’ standard for impeachment. They gave Congress the power to remove a president at a time when few federal crimes existed or were contemplated being legislated into existence. As Madison put it, the provision was “made for defending the Community agst. the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” Congress is well within its rights to remove a president for abuse of power. Instead of denying this constitutional commonplace or pretending that Trump made a “perfect call,” Republicans should say that Trump’s removal isn’t warranted and the voters should get their say on him directly — an argument that the public, in polls, already accepts.

• The major subplot in the Senate impeachment trial, which had just begun as we went to press, was whether any witnesses would be called, especially former Trump national-security advisor John Bolton, who said he’d come testify if the Senate issued a subpoena. Neither side exactly had airtight arguments. The House managers were pressing for witnesses and documents that the House didn’t make any serious effort to get during its impeachment inquiry because Nancy Pelosi was so desperate to impeach President Trump before Christmas (incredibly enough, the House didn’t even try to subpoena Bolton). Meanwhile, the White House defense brief emphasized the lack of firsthand witnesses in the House case, naturally leading to the question why, if such witnesses are so important, they shouldn’t be called. The best case against witnesses is that we know what happened in the Ukraine controversy and it doesn’t rise to the level of impeaching and removing the president from office, which makes the Senate more of an appellate court deciding a threshold question of law rather than a trial court sifting through witnesses and documents. Republicans would be in a stronger tactical position, and one more in accord with the facts, if they adopted this posture.

• The Government Accountability Office issued a report detailing its view that Trump’s hold on aid to Ukraine violated the law. The report flummoxed a few of his defenders, who had incautiously claimed that no law had been broken. But the more compelling defense of the president has always been that his conduct, however objectionable, does not warrant his removal. About that issue, the report quite properly has nothing to say.

• Lev Parnas is the latest Trump foot soldier to sing for his safety when his legal troubles mounted. Parnas is a Ukrainian-American businessman with links to both a Ukrainian oligarch and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani turned to him to help find the mythical CrowdStrike server (which would prove that the Clinton campaign used Ukrainians to blacken Trump) and evidence to nail Joe Biden. When the House Intelligence Committee began investigating him for pushing to have the American ambassador to Kyiv sacked for being insufficiently pro-Trump, Parnas turned over a load of documents and also went on CNN and MSNBC to claim that everyone on Team Trump knew what he was up to. Parnas is not the most credible witness. His documents do show, however, that Giuliani told the Ukrainian government in May 2019 that he had Trump’s blessing for his efforts; Trump’s “perfect” phone call to President Zelensky in July seemed to confirm it. Trump should never have let Giuliani wade into the Ukrainian mess, and the former prosecutor should have had enough experience with lowlifes not to associate with someone like Parnas.

• CNN ran a story claiming that, in a 2018 meeting with Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders had said a woman could not win the presidency. Sanders denied saying any such thing, and in a brief confrontation after the Des Moines debate the two accused each other of lying. Cui bono? The story emanated from Warren; sources in her campaign fed it to CNN, whereupon Warren confirmed it. Her delay in recounting it, her interest in recalling it now, to cast herself as a martyr when her poll numbers have sagged, and her record of speaking with forked tongue make the story dubious. But maybe Sanders, seeking to deflate her ambition, did say something like it two years ago. As a political judgment it would have been plausible, though of course it sins against identity politics. Two conclusions: The squabble on the Democratic left helps Joe Biden; and, isn’t it refreshing, in these post-truth times, to see public figures offended to be called dishonest?

• How far the president’s war powers extend has been disputed since the foundation of the republic. While the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani has renewed the debate, it easily falls within the scope of those powers. Few people doubt that American soldiers in Iraq — whose presence there was sanctioned by Congress in a 2003 law — can engage in firefights with Iranian soldiers. It follows that Americans can strike against Iranian higher-ups when they visit Iraq to plan more offenses. Some senators, notably Mike Lee (R., Utah), have been taken aback by the refusal of administration aides to say whether they believe the president could act against Iran proper without congressional authorization. There is a legal argument for that position. But it’s one that stretches the president’s powers well beyond the point of prudence. The president would be reckless to attack Iranian territory without congressional authorization, and his underlings should not imply that he disagrees.

• Someone tweeted around a doctored photo showing House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer in Islamic garb. The words were, “The corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue. #NancyPelosiFakeNews.” President Trump retweeted this. It is ingenious of the president to find two people with so much to their discredit and find something false to attack them with.

• Once more, President Trump is taking Pentagon funding and diverting it to the construction of a border wall. The administration will take $3.5 billion appropriated for counter-narcotics programs, and $3.7 billion appropriated for military construction, and divert those funds. Opinions vary as to the legality of this. A legislature with self-respect would push back.

• Trump hated NAFTA like poison, and he has succeeded in replacing it with a new U.S.–Mexico–Canada trade pact that . . . looks a lot like NAFTA. In fact, the USMCA is nearly indistinguishable from NAFTA, and that’s a good thing: Trump was always wrong about NAFTA, which has brought great benefits to U.S. businesses, their employees, and consumers. Like the China deal, the changes to the USMCA have very little to do with market access and much more to do with political management of trade, for instance in raising the percentage of North American parts necessary to avoid automobile tariffs and imposing wage mandates on automobile makers. The new deal will contain some important provisions for the digital economy, which did not exist when NAFTA was negotiated, by extending copyrights and protecting digital platforms such as Twitter from being sued for user-generated slander. Some U.S. agricultural products will have better prospects in Canada. President Trump, of course, has insisted that NAFTA was the worst agreement ever negotiated in the history of the world and that the USMCA is the best one, but they are by and large the same agreement. It was a lot of fuss for what are at best marginal improvements. 

• Trump economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow says that the president is looking at changing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The administration’s critics are treating this remark as evidence that Trump favors corruption. But the 1970s law has always inspired justified criticism — over its vagueness, its disregard for traditional principles of culpability, its disproportionate penalties, and its burden on the competitiveness of American businesses — and the criticism has mounted as prosecutors have tried to expand the law’s reach. The Obama administration thought greater clarity about what the law forbade was needed. It would be surprising if the most protectionist administration in decades reformed the law in a way that made it easier for American businesses to invest overseas, but Trump would deserve praise for playing against type.

• Senator Martha McSally (R., Ariz.) responded to a question from CNN’s Manu Raju by saying she wasn’t going to talk to a liberal hack, and Republicans nationwide cheered. Raju’s question was in fact innocuous: He wanted to know whether she favored hearing from witnesses at the impeachment trial, a question to which other Republican senators have given a variety of answers. CNN corporately protested at the unfairness. Unfairness is a subject the network would do well to ponder, along with how it has painstakingly acquired its bad reputation among conservative voters.

• The Left has endless faith in the power of regulations. A few thousand pages in the Federal Register can make renewable energy cheap and practicable, increase everyone’s salary — and, most miraculous of all, make children eat their vegetables. That, at least, was the thinking behind Michelle Obama’s school-lunch reforms, which among other things mandated that fruits and vegetables be served as part of every meal. That turned out about as well as you’d expect: Kids ate the hamburger or chicken breast, discarded the apple and the broccoli, and then, if they were still hungry, went out and bought a bag of pork rinds. Now the USDA, in a fit of common sense, has proposed halving the vegetable requirement and allowing foods that kids will actually eat, such as hamburgers and pizza, to be sold alone as snacks. That’s our idea of a sensibly run federal school-lunch program. The only thing better would be no federal involvement in school lunch at all.

• Enrolled in a U.S. Armed Forces training program, Saudi-air-force lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani carried out a jihadist attack on an American naval base in Florida. He murdered three young members of our Navy and wounded eight others before being killed by return fire. A follow-up investigation resulted in the expulsion of 21 other Saudis tied to jihadist rhetoric and child pornography. Attorney General Bill Barr took umbrage at Apple’s purported lack of cooperation in obtaining Alshamrani’s data. The tech giant helped the FBI obtain information stored in the cloud, but declined to create a key or “backdoor” through which investigators could break the password protection on Alshamrani’s iPhones. Of course we want the bureau to solve serious crime, but our modern information economy depends on encryption to safeguard everything from financial and health-care records to the power grid. Apple convincingly says any bypass created for law enforcement could be exploited by criminal hackers, making everyone’s information vulnerable. The FBI has had past success recruiting code-breaking help from the private sector. It is the government’s responsibility to increase its proficiency; it should not hold technological progress hostage to its competence.

• Tennessee governor Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a bill affirming his state’s commitment to fund faith-based adoption agencies that refuse to serve same-sex couples. Lee drew the ire of LGBT advocacy organizations, whose litigiousness had drowned some faith-based agencies in legal bills and court fees. The law assures those religious agencies of state funding, even if the federal government resumes the Obama-era policy of denying federal dollars to adoption organizations that refuse to serve same-sex couples. Lee’s signature on the bill, the eleventh of its kind nationwide, is an important victory for conscience rights and helps secure the future of religious adoption agencies in the Volunteer State.

• New York State attorney general Letitia James announced an investigation into the racial breakdown of arrests for fare-beating in New York City’s subways. Said James: “We’ve all read the stories and seen the disturbing videos of men, women, and children being harassed, dragged away, and arrested,” the vast majority of them black and Hispanic. So Gotham is poised to abandon the policy that began its renaissance almost 30 years ago. William Bratton, as chief of the transit police, launched a program of quality-of-life policing, by which cops pursued minor offenders, such as fare-beaters, as well as serious criminals. Lo: Arrests of turnstile-jumpers caught many wanted for felonies; the new mood heartened the law-abiding as it discouraged the lawless. When Bratton became police commissioner he brought the new methods above ground, to the city’s great benefit. Now racial bean-counting seems set to replace order, safety, and justice.

• Somewhere around halfway between Leonard Cohen and Thomas Nast, you will find . . . Andrew Cuomo. Now, if you don’t understand what New York’s blustery Democratic governor has in common with the morose singer-songwriter and the 19th-century editorial cartoonist, well, neither do we, but Cuomo has borrowed some lyrics from Cohen’s “Democracy,” fit them into Nast’s crowded, allegorical illustration style, and come up with a poster (executed by the artist Rusty Zimmerman) that encapsulates his plans for the Empire State in 2020. In it, a “Ship of State” dating approximately to the War of 1812 steers precariously between Cohen’s “Reefs of Greed” and “Squalls of Hate,” heading toward a rocky outcropping emblazoned with the words “Bridges,” “Roads,” and “Airports” (“Subways” is an understandable omission). “Intolerance” is represented by a menacing octopus, “Bigotry” by a dragon, and “Government Incompetence,” somewhat obscurely, by a squid. Serenely floating over it all is a rainbow labeled “The Arc of the Moral Universe.” Now we understand why Governor Cuomo wants to legalize marijuana.

• The Equal Rights Amendment, dead for nearly 40 years, has been called forth Lazarus-like from the grave. In January, the newly elected Democratic legislature in Virginia voted to ratify it. The move was “symbolic,” as the New York Times put it, but that didn’t prevent the media from treating it as full of significance. In 1972, a supermajority of Congress proposed the amendment, which stipulated that ratification by three-fourths of the states had to be achieved within seven years. That deadline passed, with only 35 states having voted for ratification — three short of the necessary number. Activists and some liberal legal scholars have nonetheless attempted to resuscitate the ERA on the theory (rejected by the Department of Justice earlier this month) that either the deadline was invalid to begin with or a simple majority of Congress could undo it after the fact. Nevada and Illinois have voted in recent years to approve the amendment, and Virginia became the 38th state to do so. A legal battle will now ensue, and members of Congress will face demands to show their support for women’s equality by passing a law to extend the deadline retroactively. If Congress thinks the country ought to adopt the ERA, however, it should follow the advice of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and put it “back in the political hopper, starting over again, collecting the necessary number of states to ratify it.” That is, it should follow the process the Constitution prescribes.

• “Porn has become a pervasive presence and a counteroffensive should begin.” So wrote William F. Buckley Jr. in these pages in 2001. Interest in mounting such a counteroffensive has been building on the right of late. One modest step would be to enforce laws against obscenity that are already on the books. Princeton professor Robert P. George made the case for doing so in a letter to Attorney General Barr, urging the Department of Justice to more systematically apply anti-obscenity laws to the transmission of online pornography. George described the proliferation of hardcore porn as a moral and public-health crisis, affecting particularly women who are exploited and demeaned by it and children whose early exposure to it their parents are increasingly powerless to prevent. The government has a legitimate interest in mitigating these harms, and it can begin by using the tools already at its disposal.

• The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal drove a wedge between the U.S. on one side and the U.K., France, and Germany on the other. Our European allies made it clear that they remained committed to the deal, bypassing U.S. sanctions even as an increasingly belligerent Iran flouted the deal’s terms. But they may finally have had enough. After Iran announced on January 5 that it would no longer follow the deal’s uranium-enrichment limits, the Europeans responded by invoking its “dispute-resolution mechanism,” setting in motion a byzantine hearings process that could result in a snapback of EU sanctions and prompting Iran to threaten to leave the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. Next they’ll tell us the regime has nuclear ambitions.

• What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object is a famous old riddle that captures exactly the crisis unfolding in Iran. The mullahs have put in place a police state that has left tens of thousands in prison or the graveyard and driven about 8 million into exile, and they pursue policies that might very well end in existential war. For some time now, many of their unfortunate subjects have been regularly demonstrating against the regime in virtually every city and town in the country. The killing of Qasem Soleimani raises the stakes. Preaching at Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, otherwise the “supreme leader,” gave another of his regular anti-American turns at a moment of pure symbolism when protesters were tearing down posters in praise of Soleimani and chanting “Death to the dictator,” that is to say, to Khamenei himself. According to a popular conspiracy theory, Soleimani was preparing a military coup and the ayatollah, alarmed but devious, denounced him in the knowledge that the Americans would do the hard work. What is certain is that the regime and its critics have incompatible ends and are already resorting to whatever means come to hand to achieve them.

• Kimia Alizadeh is the only Iranian woman ever to win an Olympic medal: She won a bronze in taekwondo in 2016. Twenty-one years old, she has now defected in Europe. She said that she was “one of the millions of oppressed women” whom Iranian officials have been “playing with for years.” She continued, “They took me wherever they wanted. I wore whatever they said. Every sentence they ordered me to say, I repeated.” And so on. “None of us mattered to them,” she said. To defect was extremely hard, she said. And “I remain a daughter of Iran wherever I am.” Her cruelly governed country should be proud.

• On January 11, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points as voters rejected the opposition’s call for friendlier relations with Beijing. A little more than a year ago, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party suffered major losses in local elections, but after Chinese Communist Party leaders pushed a bill in Hong Kong that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, her popularity skyrocketed. Beijing interfered in the elections with disinformation campaigns and financial support for Tsai’s opponents, but to no avail. In a January 2019 speech, Chinese president Xi Jinping took a tougher stance toward the island, conditioning cross-Strait dialogue on Taiwan’s accepting the “one China” principle — according to which Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China — and adopting the status of “one country, two systems” currently (but decreasingly) held by Hong Kong. Tsai rejected Xi’s proposal out of hand and took measures to weaken ties to the Mainland. Her victory caps a series of setbacks for Xi, who sees the reoccupation of Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea as part of his project of “national rejuvenation.” Coupled with a slowing economy, support for democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests that “rejuvenation” will not come anytime soon.

• The International Olympic Committee has warned athletes that they are not to engage in political protests at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Such protests would include kneeling, hand gestures, and armbands. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral,” said the IOC. Well and good. But cynical observers — or call them realists — contended that the IOC really had its eye on Beijing 2022, not Tokyo 2020. There is a lot to protest in China: including the imprisonment of more than 1 million Uyghurs in a gulag. When it hosts the Winter Games in 2022, the Chinese Communist Party wants to present a sanitized image. Just as it wanted in 2008, when it hosted the Summer Games, just as it wants always.

• Facebook nearly caused an international incident recently, and it had nothing to do with fake ads. A news item on Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Burma rendered his name as “Mr S***hole.” An embarrassed Facebook looked into the matter and explained that the company’s Burmese-to-English translation software did not recognize the name “Xi,” so it considered the name as a partial word and guessed what it was short for, and the word it selected was translated to English as “s***hole.” Could happen to anyone, right? Neither country had any official comment, though Xi did look even more grumpy than usual in the official photos. Hate speech and electoral meddling are regrettable enough, but auto-complete? We won’t be surprised if it starts a war someday.

• As Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader, noted wryly, “dictatorship and term limits rarely go together.” Vladimir Putin has staged an easy constitutional coup, geared toward keeping himself in power for life. Why do dictators do this? Why do they go through the constitutional motions when they are going to get their way regardless? Why did Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti feel the need to lower the age at which a person could become president, to install Baby Doc? Why have he, Saddam Hussein, and other dictators staged public referenda (of which the results tend toward 100 percent to zero)? Borrowing from La Rochefoucauld, call it a tribute that dictatorship pays to democracy.

• Australia is dry, hot, and home to plenty of eucalyptus trees, which secrete flammable oil and shed flammable bark. Australians have fought brushfires for tens of thousands of years. But the latest round of fires in Australia has consumed about 25 million acres of land — that’s larger than Indiana — and set off an international debate. As with the rest of the world, Australia has grown hotter as carbon emissions have risen, and as Roger Pielke Jr. notes in Forbes, research indicates that the changing climate can increase the incidence of “fire weather” and thus the risk of wildfires in the future. Policies limiting controlled burns likely exacerbated the damage of the recent fires. As for the grotesque suggestion that the fires are Australians’ comeuppance for electing a conservative government in 2019, mitigating the risks of disaster will take planning, not partisanship.

• The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced that they would step away from certain duties of royal family members, moving to Canada and devoting themselves to their own projects. Elizabeth II announced in turn that the break would be more sundering than the two had intended. The couple will lose their titles as royal highnesses; they must repay 3 million pounds spent on refurbishing their last English residence; and they will attend gala royal functions by invitation only. Beginning in the reign of Victoria, the British monarchy cast itself as a symbolic institution, above the muck of politics and scandal. There were bumps along the way — Edward VII’s womanizing, Edward VIII’s abdication, Princess Margaret’s swinging London, Princess Diana’s attempted hostile takeover. But the implicit contract has held: In return for wealth and honor, the royals show themselves at myriad public functions, and (more recently) submit to tabloid scrutiny. Neither the American Meghan nor the Brit Harry seems to have understood the deal, so they are dealt out. Heigh-ho.

• “It’s time the constitution had a language that respects both genders,” says Carmen Calvo, deputy prime minister of Spain. She means the Spanish constitution, written in Spanish, a language that features feminine nouns, masculine nouns, a sprinkling of neuter constructions, and deep conventions governing the use of gender. One of those conventions is to use the generic masculine “to designate a type of being,” “all the individuals” belonging to a category “regardless of sex,” as the Real Academia Española (RAE) maintains. A year ago Calvo sent her proposal to the RAE, the arbiter of Spanish usage. A ministra, she belongs to a consejo de ministros. Why not a consejo de ministros y ministras? Wouldn’t that be more accurate and fair? Don’t accuracy and fairness likewise demand that ciudadanos españoles (Spanish citizens) be changed to ciudadanos/ciudadanas españoles/españolas? “Languages are governed by the principle of economy,” the head of the RAE notes dryly. “The systematic doubling of words destroys this.” Don’t confuse grammar with machismo, he adds.

• Kitty Demure, a drag queen, shared a video message on Twitter, since watched tens of thousands of times and reposted by the Post Millennial. Addressing parents who want their children influenced by drag, Demure, dressed in a wig and wearing full face makeup, said, “A drag queen performs in a nightclub for adults, there is a lot of filth that goes on, a lot of sexual stuff that goes on, and backstage there’s a lot of nudity, sex, and drugs. So I don’t think that this is an avenue that you want your child to explore.” Demure also claimed that introducing children to drag was harmful to the gay community, which historically has had to contend with unfair accusations of pedophilia. Drag is adult entertainment: “Don’t ruin your child’s life, and don’t ruin us, because that’s what you’re doing.”

• Major League Baseball suspended the Houston Astros’ general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and their field manager, A. J. Hinch, after conducting an investigation and concluding that the team had used a video system to steal signs from opposing teams in 2017 and part of 2018. The Astros’ owner fired Luhnow and Hinch later in the day, after MLB’s announcement. Sign-stealing by any means is a violation of the game’s unwritten rules. MLB’s written rules are silent about sign-stealing per se but prohibit the use of electronic means to accomplish it. MLB fined the Astros $5 million and took away their first pick in the next two drafts. Critics say that Commissioner Rob Manfred should punish the culprits harder, although the reputational damage that the Astros have already brought on themselves would be hard to exaggerate. The exposure of the offense has served its purpose, discouraging the rest of the league from the temptation to cheat, and league officials are right not to look back unduly. They’re considering measures to prevent a recurrence. That’s the ball they need to keep their eyes on.

• In 1970, Ecuador’s population of the giant Española tortoise was down to two males and twelve females. Wildlife officials made a last-ditch effort to save the species by rounding up these survivors, shipping them to a captive-breeding facility in the Galápagos Islands, and telling them to get busy mating. One of the males turned out to be a bust at siring children, so in 1976 a 50-year-old Española tortoise named Diego, then living in the San Diego Zoo, was brought in, and he proved very popular with the ladies (tortoises know how to take it slow). Through his heroic exertions, the breeding program has been a roaring success; the species is being returned to a prepared habitat on Española, and in March Diego himself will come home, no doubt to a hero’s welcome. Oddly enough, though, the other male turtle in the program actually sired more children than tireless Diego, by a 60 percent–40 percent margin. So why did Diego get all the publicity? A biologist explained to the New York Times that Diego has “a big personality — quite aggressive, active and vocal in his mating habits.” In this department, at least, the tortoise does beat the hare.

• The New York Public Library has released a list of its ten most checked-out books as part of its 125th-anniversary celebration. To Kill a Mockingbird (No. 5) and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (No. 8) make the list, but, owing to their reputation and brevity, children’s books are the dominating genre. Ezra Jack Keats’s delightful Snowy Day takes first place, followed by classics such as Charlotte’s Web (No. 6) and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (No. 10). Latecomer Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ranks as No. 9. The personal dislike of NYPL librarian Anne Carroll Moore kept Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon off bookshelves until the 1970s, but the current staff gave this slighted classic an honorable mention, predicting it would join the top ten in good time.

• Christopher Tolkien, youngest son of the author and professor J.R.R., lived the first half of his life in England, the second in France. But his true home was Middle Earth. Christopher heard the stories that became The Hobbit as a child and read installments of The Lord of the Rings in letters from home when serving with the RAF in World War II. He drew the maps for the published edition of the magnum opus and spent decades after his father’s death editing the elaborate backstories that had been left in manuscript versions (some of them on scraps of paper as small as napkins). His opinion of Peter Jackson’s film version was bleak: “an action film for 15- to 25-year-olds,” he sniffed. Other literary critics have known their subjects, sometimes quite well (Boswell and Johnson, Wilson and Fitzgerald). But none has been more intimately present at such a long creation. Fans of the Christian mythmaker owe his son a considerable debt. Dead at 95, R.I.P.

• In May 1968, visiting his girlfriend in Paris, Roger Scruton watched from an apartment window as students overturned cars and lampposts and threw stones at police. For seven weeks the civil unrest raged, paralyzing France. “That’s when I became a conservative,” he observed years later. “I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.” He was teaching in London, when he published his third book, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), which met with furrowed brows among his left-leaning academic peers. Goodbye, academe. Over the next four decades he wrote more than 50 books, including half a dozen novels. Add to his curriculum vitae a couple of operas and the script to the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters (2009), which he also narrated. During the Cold War he supported an underground network of intellectuals against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He smuggled in literature. In 1998, the Iron Curtain no more, President Václav Havel of the newly formed Czech Republic awarded him the Medal of Merit. Queen Elizabeth knighted Scruton in 2016. After a bout with cancer, he died in January, age 75. Requiescat in pace.


The China Truce

The new U.S.–China trade deal is weak on its own terms — weak as a trade deal — and weak in that it does not account for the fact that the principal trouble in the U.S.–China relationship is not trade at all but the character of the Beijing regime, a government of terror, abuse, and oppression whose horrifying ambitions are by no means confined to its own territory.

On the trade front, the bill may provide some reassurance to skittish investors — and the antecedent trade conflict has demonstrated to Beijing that the U.S. economy is better suited to weathering such disruptions than the Chinese one, which fact should enter into future calculations — but the agreement does almost nothing to open up markets in China to U.S. producers.

Instead, it consists of a series of purchase agreements in which promises to buy certain quantities of this or that good are offered as a substitute for genuine market access. That these agreements amount to an implausible promise to increase Chinese imports of U.S. goods by 50 percent in two years raises the possibility that Beijing has simply bought time by signing yet another agreement that it has no intention of honoring, as it has done on half a dozen occasions over the previous decades.

The agreement commits Beijing to cracking down on counterfeit goods and establishes new penalties for failing to comply. It also obliges Beijing, in a very general way, to liberalize the rules hampering the operation of U.S. financial-services firms in Beijing. But it does not specifically require the repeal or reform of any particular law or regulation, and Beijing has shown itself more than able to thrive and maneuver in such vagueness.

On the bigger, “structural” picture — in which China’s economy is ruthlessly regimented under a system of subsidies and controls that will continue to disadvantage overseas firms irrespective of the superficial (and, so far, hypothetical) changes associated with any Beijing–Washington accord — the agreement remains silent. That’s a concern for “phase two,” apparently, should such a thing ever come to pass.

We are not confident that it will, given the real issue here, which is the character of the Beijing regime.

China maintains some abusive trade policies, but the fundamental problem with the Chinese government is not how many tons of Nebraska-grown soybeans get unloaded on Nantong docks: The problem is that the Chinese government is a totalitarian, one-party police state that currently is packing ethnic minorities into concentration camps, harvesting the organs of dissidents, stamping out civil liberty in Hong Kong, and bullying neighbors from Taipei to New Delhi. Negotiations over trade differences are not a mere distraction, in that these issues are important in their own right, but neither is a trade accord a substitute for a more robust and credible policy that takes account of U.S. interests beyond commerce, including human rights, democracy, and peace.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


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It’s Friday -- although I know it’s getting harder and harder to tell these days. You deserve a respite from yesterday’s gloom. (If you’re hungry for more gloom, there’s always the most recent edition of The Editors podcast -- and thank you, dear readers, for checking on me.) Today’s newsletter ... Read More
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